July 30, 2019


Experiencing a mind-blowing horse race in an Italian city that has been sitting in my bucket list for years.

I supposed to see it during my first trip to Italy, in 2011, but chasing the massive amount of significant cultural sites across the country, I ended with no time to make a stop here. Years passed, and I learned that besides the amazing old town, the city also hosts Palio: the oldest uninterrupted horse race in the world, which takes place on the Siena's main square, Piazza del Campo, since 1632. While I was never too much into horse races, the appeal of this event definitely grabbed my attention. The bareback race is preceded by a medieval-style celebration, and so visiting the city during the Palio looked like the ultimate goal.

Fast forward, when I was planning this summer and realized that I could actually fit it into my schedule, it was a clear deal. This is happening! A few weeks later, my friend and I were sitting on a morning train arriving in the city, wondering what will we see here. Getting rid of backpacks, then up to the city. The first stop was the Fortezza Medicea - a fort from the 16th century, which is converted into a public park for over than 100 years now. And it offers a nice view of the surroundings.

Then, setting off to see the tangled streets of the old town.

They are atmospheric and properly beautiful. What surprised me, if it wouldn't be flags of city's districts hanged around, one could easily forget that today is the day of the Palio.

Eventually, we made it to a must-see point in Siena, the local Duomo.

I read a lot of praise about this structure, and indeed, it delivers. Inside and out, one could admire all the details for months.

A feast for the eyes and mind, for sure. But as the human body needs more than that, we went to get some food, too. Scored a good restaurant, in which we sat at a table with an Italian couple, who shared some of their plates, and a few stories. After the meal, we stopped by the Basilica of San Francesco, another stunning temple.

Continuing with the stroll through the old town, suddenly, an approaching drumroll broke the quiet time of siesta. Festival mood, here we go! Sure enough, in a moment, a parade representing a specific city district came to us.

They stopped right next to us, and performed a synchronized dance with the flags, which they threw in the air and then caught them in respectable positions. The sun was boiling everything in its way, but no bother, the show's fabulous.

Just as they finished, there's another parade, representing a different part of the city. This one was followed by a children's choir. Before they passed, the third one was approaching.

Suddenly, the place crowded beyond belief. Suddenly, the atmosphere of the city transformed. From now on, you could not be mistaken: It's the Palio day.

Right on, is the time. While it's still some 4 hours to the race, we are going to the Piazza del Campo, to claim our spot.

Siena's cityhall, Palazzo Pubblico, with the Torre del Mangia.

The racecourse is around the shell-shaped square, covered by a layer of hard-packed dirt. On the outer side are wooden tribunes, which require expensive/hard to get tickets, but the inner square is accessible free of charge. That's where we are.

The timing is just right. Although we are far from being there first, we scored a prime place: fab view, while in the shade.

At 3.30p.m., a cannon placed in a corner of the square fires up, scaring away all the pigeons, and inviting more people to come. Indeed, they are arriving in masses. 4p.m., another round from the cannon. There are no pigeons to fly up, but the heart rate of the crowds would do. During the wait, Carabineri (Italian gendarmery) passes by with a guard dog, randomly searching for suspicious content.

We are in the shade, but as of now, many people are standing in the direct sunlight. It is 36c/97f. Dear me, that is some dedication. Meanwhile, local first responders are preparing for what seems inevitable, bringing defibrillators, gallons of water and stretchers.

4:40p.m., another gunshot. People everywhere but the very centre of the square. I'm fine, typing these notes, but when the bystanders lit up cigarettes, man, in this heat, struggles.

AT 5p.m, the historic pageant begins. It is commenced by a group of Carabinieri who perform a formation on horses.

Piazza is packed. Not just the ground, all the windows of the buildings surrounding the square and some roofs are full of people too. Later, I read in a local paper that there were around 35 thousand spectators, and I believe that.

Presentation of the city districts starts. Flag bearers, knights, and the racehorses are walking the circle. In front of us is a number of professional photographers. Kilos of cameras on each shoulder, snapping every member of the parade in a rate 12 clicks per second. Still, that's nothing compared to the beat of the drummers in the parade, though. Anyway, watching them photographers gives me an interesting feeling, as this used to be my day job not too long ago.

Now, however, I am glad that I am not here on an assignment. It is a very different mindset, when you are paid to take photos, it puts more pressure on you. You have to predict things, and also always be aware of what's happening. It is exciting in a way, but you can't really take a break - what if something happens in that time. You have to prepare for what's coming, not just "take it as it goes."Well and today, I was glad that I could just let the atmosphere soak in, rather than to be on the mission for the best shot.

I am enjoying the visually rich ceremony, but can't overhear a group of Americans, standing next to us, constantly complaining: "The music they play is repetitive, it's the same shit, again and again, I get it!" It makes me, once again, recalling my days in photojournalism: on pretty much high school basketball game I covered in the States, school's bands performed the same songs. But I didn't hear anyone complaining. Then the group continued: "It takes too long!" I am thinking, "Dear me, there was a detailed schedule issued beforehand, stating the duration of the celebrations!" That's like if a person would go to a soccer game, and would be upset that it is 90 minutes. Oh uh.

Suddenly, a girl nearby passed out, having her face same color as the grey pavement. Well, shoot. The crowd is making space as the emergency personnel is coming to take care of her. When they leave, two of the US eldery women are using the situation to skip ahead and steal the good positions. I was annoyed, but wrestling old sweaty.. um.. ladies was not something I would like to spend doing the rest of the day. I was glad that I lived in the US, so I knew that the US people I run into here weren't good ambassadors of the country. But it made me think how all tourists represent their country / continent / culture, whether they want or not. Anyway. I tried to isolate myself from the crowd nearby, and to focus on the whole atmosphere instead.

The parade soon presented a carriage with city officials pulled by mighty oxen, then all the flag holders did a final performance, and the course got cleared for the race. The schedule was planned right, as it was just the moment when the entire square's surface was in the shade. That way, it forms a far better environment for the racers.
Racers arrived, and the crowd went quiet. Tension started rising. Some of the horses were a bit nervous, so it took a while to get them all sorted and lined up at the start. Then, "bang" and they are off. The horses started flying forward, and the entire square started shouting, cheering for their favorite. Oh, my, goodness! The atmosphere was electrifying beyond words. Wham! The first lap done. Now, I heard that this is an experience, and I was looking forward to it. But I had no idea. The excitement in the air was insane! As the horses entered the section in front of the city hall, I captured the only pic I took during the race:

Wham! a moment later, they rushed past me, finishing the second lap. Everyone is screaming, waving flags, as the racers enter the final straight. There, the leading racer, representing the city quarter Chiocciola, is reached by Giovanni Atzeni, riding for the Giraffa quarter. Head-to-head finish, and the Giraffa is taking the narrow win. Holy Molly; mind-blown!

The actual race took just over a minute, and just as the last horse passes the finish line, the barriers are lifted, allowing the racecourse to be flooded by people celebrating the event. Meanwhile, setting sun colors the city hall tower in a golden light.

About half an hour earlier, surrounded by the whining people in that boiling weather, for a moment, I was questioning whether it was worthy to come to Siena today. Oh man! I was so glad I did. Still I am. I can't recall experiencing anything with a similar atmosphere as the race had. It was fantastic!

Smiling, I am taking my time. No desire to be squashed at the gates, as the crowd is leaving. "What an event!" I am thinking.

Later, we took a walk through the old town once more, catching the city in amazing light. Not that I would lack endorphins at this point, but you cannot go wrong with Italian ice cream. Pushing the happiness into an overdose, "What a day!" I am thinking.

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Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories

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